State's top college player was improving even while sidelined with injury.
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Jimmer Fredette came to town, and Damian Lillard could only watch.
The darkest moment in Lillard's lost season came early, when a broken foot caused him to miss the meeting with the most celebrated opponent on Weber State's 2010-11 schedule. "Everybody knows Jimmer Fredette," Lillard said.
They also should know Lillard, by now. If not, they will. There may never be another Jimmer in Utah, but Weber State's point guard is the state's closest thing to him these days. He's a star whose best attribute, coach Randy Rahe said, is he "doesn't picture himself as a big deal."
As the Wildcats prepare to open the season Friday, coaches and teammates say Lillard is not the same player as before he's better, after spending 11 months improving his body, his mind and his game.
"He's one of those kids who has to be doing something to get himself better," Rahe said, "and he dove into it."
Lillard was caught off guard that December day in Rahe's office, when the coach suggested that he take advantage of his chance to improve. "My foot's broken," Lillard replied.
Yet if running and jumping were out, lifting weights and watching videotapes were in. Lillard spent four or five days a week in the weight room and considerable time in the film room, studying all 71 games he had played for the Wildcats. The results are noticeable.
Besides Lillard's becoming much stronger, "His basketball I.Q. has increased dramatically," said senior forward Kyle Bullinger.
BYU's visit came only five days after Lillard's injury, when a Tulsa player stepped on his right foot and broke a bone that already was fragile, requiring surgery. Soon afterward, advice from his brother Houston Lillard had played quarterback at Southeast Missouri State, overcoming knee injuries kicked in, and Damian understood his choices: "Feel bad for myself until I can play again, or work on things that I can control."
Not surprisingly, he chose the work option. Having previously coached overachieving players at Colorado State, Utah State and Utah, Rahe labels Lillard "the hardest-working kid I've ever been around in 22 years."
Discipline and structure, hallmarks of Rahe's program, are important to Lillard. "I know that's one of the last things you would expect of somebody from Oakland," he said.
Yet he had good influences growing up in that inner-city setting, including five close friends who kept one another accountable. Lillard's father, also named Houston, "taught me at an early age to surround myself with people who want to do the same things as me," he said.
One of those friends, Davion Berry, has transferred to Weber State and is redshirting. Lillard will be able to play with him next season, because the NCAA restored his year of eligibility.
So he's a junior again, ready to replay the season that started with his 28-point showing at Utah State and ended in WSU's ninth game. The Wildcats responded impressively without the Big Sky Conference's reigning MVP, posting an 18-14 record.
They're thrilled to have him back, and not just because of his ability. Lillard is an "ideal teammate," Bullinger said. "When your most talented guy is the hardest worker and your most coachable player, then you've got something going."
Weber State was rewarded as the first program to pursue Lillard, who was overlooked before his AAU coach, Raymond Young, contacted Rahe. Other schools, including some in the Pac-12, later recruited him, but Lillard was not motivated by conference affiliation. "Damian had no ego about that," Rahe said. "He wanted the best fit, not the highest level."
Now that Lillard is back and blending in nicely, the Wildcats are heavy favorites again in the Big Sky. As the season starts, Lillard already is thinking about the ending. In his first two years, Weber State won the league's regular-season titles, only to lose at home in the conference tournament and miss the NCAA Tournament.
So there's no Jimmer in his immediate future, but sufficient challenges are looming in a season when, even more than before, Lillard appreciates his chance to play basketball.
Damien Lillard's career
Season FG Pts. Ast.
2000-09 43.4 11.5 2.9
2009-10 43.1 19.9 3.6
2010-11* 43.8 17.7 3.3
* Nine games, prior to injury